This is a continuation of my five-part Battle Spotlight on the Gettysburg campaign. If you haven’t already, please read my previous posts: Battle Spotlight #14: Gettysburg – Introduction and Battle Spotlight #14: Gettysburg – Day 1 to get a sense of what the situation was prior to July 2.
During the night, the majority of the troops of both armies filed onto the battlefield. On the Confederate side, two of the three divisions of Longstreet’s corps as well as the rest of the troops from the other two corps arrived; on the Union side, the II Corps (under John Gibbon), the V Corps (under George Sykes), the VI Corps (under John Sedgewick), and the XII Corps (under Alpheus Williams) marched in from the various roads on the south. Winfield Hancock was in command of the Left Wing – the I, II, III, and XI Corps, while Henry Slocum commanded the Right Wing – the V, VI, and XII Corps.
The Union position was set up along the ridges and hills southeast of town – Culp’s Hill, southeast of the town, Cemetery Hill, directly south of the town, and Cemetery Ridge, south of Cemetery Hill and extending for two miles to the south, and ending on Little Round Top. The Union position resembled a fishhook, – the eye on Little Round Top, the shank on Cemetery Ridge, and the bend on Cemetery and Culp’s Hill.
Lee’s plan of attack was to use Longstreet’s fresh troops to launch a flank attack on the Union left, along the Emmitsburg Road and Cemetery Ridge, with Ewell’s corps launching a feint attack on the Union right, at Culp’s Hill, to prevent Meade from moving troops away from that sector to bolster his left. Longstreet’s attack would be launched with two of his three divisions, Hood’s and McLaws’s (Pickett’s division was still on the march), and one of A. P. Hill’s divisions under Richard Anderson. These two attacks were to be launched at the same time.
Daniel Sickles, commander of the Federal III Corps, was unhappy with his position on the south edge of Cemetery Ridge. He saw what he thought was much more favorable high ground about a half a mile to his direct front. So, he ordered his entire corps forward, without authorization from Meade. The new position ran from Devil’s Den to the Peach Orchard, along the Emmitsburg Road. The troops were aligned in a salient, which means that they were in a V shape and were subject to attacks on two sides, and the corps was spread out on such large an area that it would be impossible to defend their position.
The Confederate attack was delayed until much later than planned, because Longstreet had to countermarch his corps due to faulty intelligence. When the attack was launched, Longstreet’s corps ran straight into Sickle’s corps, instead of finding the latter half a mile back with the rest of the Union troops. Heavy fighting ensued in the Peach Orchard and in the Wheatfield between the Union III corps and the Confederate I Corps, with Meade pouring in reinforcements and Lee sending troops in piecemeal, brigade by brigade.
McLaws’s Confederate division attacked the thin ranks of the III Corps repeatedly in the Wheatfield, driving the Federals back to the Peach Orchard, where they were finally stopped by a division of reinforcements from the V Corps. The fight went on like this, with one side gaining the momentum only to be driven back by reinforcements from the other side. South of McLaws, John Bell Hood’s Confederate division was engaged at Devil’s Den, a large outcropping of rock at the base of Cemetery Ridge.
At around 6 pm, Anderson’s Confederate division finally started its attack on Cemetery Ridge against the Union II Corps, to the north of the current fight. This division reached the crest of the ridge, only to be held back by vicious counterattacks from the units of the II Corps including a valiant charge by the 1st Minnesota regiment against an entire brigade of Confederates, launched in order to buy time for units of John Gibbon’s division of the II corps to arrive to fill a gap.
Meanwhile, south of the II and III corps, Gouverneur K. Warren, the Federal army’s chief engineer, was surveying the battle from Little Round Top. Little Round Top was a hill at the south end of Cemetery Ridge, and it was completely unoccupied at the moment. Realizing that the Confederates could at any time sweep over this hill and descend on the Federal left flank and possibly cost the Union the entire battle, Warren rushed to send any troops he could find to the hill. Those troops were Colonel Strong Vincent’s brigade of the V corps, Charles Hazlett’s artillery battery, and the 140th New York regiment. They arrived only moments before units of John Bell Hood’s Confederate division came charging up the hill.
The Union troops assembled on Little Round Top – five regiments in total – were able to repel numerous charges by Evander Law’s brigade. The Confederates were finally driven back by a bayonet charge by the 20th Maine regiment, led by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain.
The attack on the Union right flank got off to an even later start. Edward Johnson’s division of the Third Corps only started attacking Culp’s Hill at 7 pm. Due to most of the troops stationed on Culp’s Hill being sent off to reinforce other sectors of the battle, there was only one brigade left to defend against the Confederate attack. However, Union Gen. George Greene, that brigade’s commander, had ordered the construction of complex trenches and defensive works, and they were able to fend off Johnson’s attack.
As the sun dipped below the horizon, Jubal Early’s division of the Third Corps launched the final attack of the day. He led his men up East Cemetery Hill, and they became embroiled in a hot fight against a brigade from the Union XI Corps. That brigade lost more than half their manpower, but because Early did not follow up on an initial breakthrough and reinforcements from Hancock’s II pouring in, Early’s troops were driven back.
So ended the fighting on July 2.